Trouble in Paradise
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production: Paramount; black and white; running time: 80 minutes (some sources list 86 minutes); length: 7,200 feet. Released 1932.
Producer: Ernst Lubitsch; screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, adapted by Grover Jones from the play, The Honest Finder by Laszlo Aladar; photography: Victor Milner; sets: Hans Dreier; music: W. Franke Harling.
Cast: Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu/Gaston Laval/The Baron); Miriam Hopkins (Lily, alias the Countess); Kay Francis (Mariette Colet); Edward Everett Horton (François); Charlie Ruggles (The Major); C. Aubrey Smith (Adolf J. Giron); Robert Craig (Jacques, the Manservant); Leonid Kinskey (A Russian).
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It's no coincidence that Trouble in Paradise, Lubitsch's own favourite among his films, should also be his most elegantly amoral. Lubitsch always took delight in subverting Hollywood's publicly professed standards of morality, and in Trouble, which sneaked through just ahead of the Hays Code, he wittily thumbed his nose at every moral precept in the book. Its characters make love without any intention—and scarcely even a mention—of marriage. No uplifting sentiments are expressed, save in situations of blatant hypocrisy; nobody is redeemed by love or suffering, nor wants to be. Crime not only pays, handsomely, but is presented as a sexy and stylish activity—and in any case hurts no one but the rich, who are either fools, or crooks themselves.
"Beginnings are always difficult," muses Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), preparing for an intimate supper with an attractive fellow thief. Not in this film, they're not; from beginning to end, Trouble proceeds with seemingly effortless momentum. In the opening sequence a gondolier, giving a heartfelt rendition of O Sole Mio, glides along a nocturnal canal—collecting garbage; a robbery is affected in a darkened hotel room; and moments later Gaston leans pensively on his balcony, immaculate save only for a tiny leaf adhering to his sleeve. In the erotic sparring-match which follows, Lily (Miriam Hopkins) is visibly aroused by the knowledge that Gaston has just pulled off a crime, and their encounter becomes a seduction by mutual theft, each removing valuables from the other's person like intimate articles of clothing.
Throughout the film—crisply scripted by Samson Raphaelson, Lubitsch's favourite screenwriter of the sound period—sex and money are equated; wealth is erotic, illicitly acquired wealth doubly so, and larceny the finest aphrodisiac. "As far as I'm concerned," says Gaston of Mme. Colet (Kay Francis), "her whole sex appeal is in that safe," and Lily defines his attraction purely in terms of his criminality: "I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook." With the lightest of satirical touches, Lubitsch portrays a society fuelled by luxury and greed. Barring only Hopkins, a touch too shrill in her later scenes, the casting is near impeccable; Marshall and Francis, never better, are supported by some of Hollywood's finest light comedians: Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith and, buttling imperturbably, Robert Greig.
Claude Chabrol once described Fritz Lang's films as "based on a metaphysic of architecture." The same, in many ways, could be said of Lubitsch, for whom decor and props often assume hardly less importance than the actors. In Trouble doors, windows, landings, staircases are choreographed into the service of the plot; the course of an evening's emotional intrigue can be conveyed by a succession of clock faces and off-screen dialogue. Words are often downgraded or dispensed with—scenes are played entirely in Italian, or in dumbshow behind glass—and at other times mockingly multiplied far beyond dramatic need. The wretched M. Filiba (Horton), explaining how he was robbed by a fake doctor, has his every word translated by the hotel manager for a chorus of excitable Italian policemen. Manager: "What did you talk about, M. Filiba?" Filiba: "About tonsils." Manager (to police): "Tonsille!" Police (variously): "Tonsille!" The effect, like a verbal hall of mirrors, is to heighten the absurdity of the incident to a near-surrealist level.
The film scored a triumphant success with public and critics alike. "Never again," according to Andrew Sarris, "was Lubitsch to experience such rapport with his audience and his medium." With censorship poised to clamp down, Trouble can be seen as the culmination of his string of erotic comedies that had begun with The Marriage Circle. Yet it also, through its influence on such directors as Cukor, McCarey, Leisen and La Cava, ushered in the golden age of Hollywood comedy. The American moviegoing public, Lubitsch had remarked on first visiting the USA in 1922, "has the mind of a twelve-year-old child; it must have life as it isn't." Nobody—and certainly not its director—would be likely to claim Trouble in Paradise as a faithful record of "life as it is." But if, in the intervening ten years, the moviegoing public—or at any rate a sizeable sector of it—had matured enough to relish a somewhat more sophisticated brand of unreality, Lubitsch himself can claim a major share of the credit.